Whales play around New Zealand coast   14 Jul 2011

Whale watching is a year-round pastime in New Zealand but come winter, the popular activity takes on a more serious role, and this year a busy migration period is providing valuable data as well as entertainment.

New Zealand is known as the marine mammal capital of the world and with 15,134 kilometres of coastline there are numerous opportunities to spot mammals especially during their winter migration.

Two main species track through New Zealand at this time of the year - humpback and southern right whales.

Cook Strait survey
An official Department of Conservation (DOC) survey in Cook Strait, between the North and South islands, has shown a record number of humpback whales passing through the area this year.

Survey leader Nadine Bott said 62 humpbacks had been spotted by the team of ex-whalers, just three weeks into the survey compared to 47 for the entire survey period last year.

The 2011 survey, which began on 11 June, finished on Saturday (9.07.2011) July.

The annual poll assesses recovery in humpback whale numbers since commercial whaling ended in New Zealand in 1963. In 2005, only 18 humpbacks were recorded, and Bott says this year’s numbers are very encouraging.

Akaroa Heads
Tourism operators like Black Cat Cruises at Aakaroa, in Canterbury, have also reported increased sightings of humpbacks, which pass the company’s Banks Peninsula doorstep on their way north from the Southern Ocean.

The company says humpbacks were seen off the Akaroa heads three times in just one week delighting tourists including a group of 16 North American travel agents.

Banks Peninsula is on the direct route for Southern Ocean humpbacks as they migrate thousands of kilometres between low latitude winter breeding and calving grounds in Antarctica and sub-tropical waters of western and eastern Australia and Fiji.

Relaxed and playful
The humpback whales are well known for their spectacular breaching and beautiful complex songs and many spotted in the Akaroa Harbour have been relaxed and playful, apparently happy to be amongst the local natives - including Hector’s dolphins, the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world.

Nadine Bott said humpbacks seen in Cook Strait also appeared relaxed and playful. The whales had come in closer to shore than normal and were happy to rest and linger - more so than other years.

Clear weather and calm sea conditions had made it easier to spot whales this season and photos provided would be particularly valuable for research.

Southern right whales
The Department of Conservation has put out its annual call for members of the public to photograph and report any sightings of southern right whales, which are normally prevalent at this time of the year, and can be easily spotted because they come close to shore.

Photographs are a less invasive, less expensive way to provide information which helps with identifying whales and monitoring their patterns of movement.

Auckland and Otago universities are investigating how southern right whales move around New Zealand.

DOC says the most useful part of the southern right whale to photograph are the callosities - yellowish, raised rough patches of tissue on the head. Each whale has a unique pattern of callosities that only change very slightly over time.

Numbers down
Laura Boren, DOC’s national mammal co-ordinator says there have been fewer sightings of southern right whales in New Zealand waters this year, which is strange after high numbers during the 2010 migration season.

The reasons could be to do with unseasonal weather and the whales staying off-shore, but further answers could come to light after a New Zealand research team completes a study in the Auckland Islands over winter, says Boren.

The southern right whale migration season runs from May through to October each year. So far there have been sightings off Ruapuke Island and Dog Islands in Southland, and in Whareongaonga, south of Young Nick's Head on the western tip of the North Island East Coast region.

(100% Pure New Zealand)

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